The so-called “Arab Spring” is well into its second year now, but sadly it appears to have turned into something of a nightmare. It started peacefully enough with Tunisian youths demonstrating for their rights to employment, justice and freedom, and the movement spreading to other North African and Middle Eastern countries like wild fire. These youthful uprisings, however, have been without charismatic leaders or clearly defined goals, and the usual response by authorities has been quite brutal. So far, four veteran dictators have been toppled and a lot of blood has been spilt, but with no end in sight.
Arabs, Democracy and Freedom of Religion
Perhaps we should not be surprised, for Arabs are not yet ready for democracy. They first have to be educated in it to understand what it means, i.e., not just having “elections”, but also granting citizens their individual human rights, respecting the rights of all minorities, and allowing freedoms of conscience, expression and worship. This also implies the freedom to change one’s religion without fear of reprisal. The largest minorities in Arab countries are Christians belonging to the ancient churches of the East who have always faced prejudice and discrimination under Islamic rule. What is particularly worrying them now is that well-organised Islamist parties are slowly hijacking the Arab Spring, aiming both to impose the laws of the Shari’a and eventually revive the Islamic Caliphate.
Through the internet and modern technology, Arab youths are aware of the attractions of Western democracy and naturally yearn to have something like it. The transition, however, would involve reforms that would go against many centuries of entrenched Islamic traditions that are contrary to the very idea of democracy, for Islam is firmly based on theocracy. The mosque and the state are one, and the concepts of neutrality, secularism, respect for human rights and religious differences are completely foreign to Muslims. It looks like the Arab youths may have to go through civil wars and Islamist dictatorships to realise that these are not the solutions they are seeking.
What also compounds the problem is the widespread ignorance, illiteracy and poverty among the masses who can be easily misled and brainwashed by fanatics. Furthermore, corruption is rampant at all levels of society, particularly at the top. Even though Christians in Arab countries are generally better educated, they are marginalized and rarely allowed to hold important positions in government, the police or the army, and the same applies to the Jews and members of other small minorities.
As the Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere are gaining power, they are formulating new constitutions based on Shari’a laws that, by their very nature, tend to discriminate against women and non-Muslim minorities and also prescribe some barbaric punishments for those who break them. The Shari’a is already being fully promulgated in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia and Northern Nigeria. Even if a constitution allows “freedom of worship” or “freedom of religion” the reality is very different indeed. In practically every Arab and Muslim country, it is forbidden—often under penalty of death—for anyone to leave Islam and embrace any other religion.
The Plight of Christians in Arab Countries
For the Christian minorities, of course, the ideal model of governance is one of citizenship rights within a democratic and plural society, similar to what we have in the West. But this cannot be foreseen for many decades to come. In fact, the way things are going, as long as Christians do not convert to Islam, their freedoms will be curtailed even further by extremist regimes. Can Christians demonstrate and demand their rights? Usually not, due to their small numbers, vulnerability and fear of reprisals, and hence they tend to either keep a low profile or simply emigrate. The only exception (apart from Lebanon) is Egypt, where the Copts number some eight million or 10% of the population. But even for them, protesting has been rather risky and ending in bloodshed.
Following the uprising in Egypt there have been many instances of churches being burnt down and Christians being attacked, raped, tortured and killed, simply on account of their religion. One of the worst atrocities was on 9 October 2011 when 26 Coptic protesters were killed by gunfire and military vehicles in front of Cairo’s state TV station. No trial was ever held or justice done. Egypt’s upper house of parliament has chosen an Islamist as its speaker, thus consolidating the position of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. The latter are an extremist sect based in Saudi Arabia and financed by its Wahhabi regime.
Only in Lebanon are Christians reasonably secure, but that is due to its unique history, when, following WW1, France helped create a mainly Maronite Catholic state, with democratic rights for all citizens. Now, however, the situation is looking rather grim, not only because Christians constitute just 30% of the population, but also because of the presence of dangerous anti-Israeli militias armed by Iran. As well as having Christians of all denominations, Lebanon also has large communities of Palestinians, Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, as well as Druze and other minorities, making it the most complex country in the Middles East. So far, however, the Arab Spring has had little effect there, and the same can be said of Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria. The kings of Jordan and Morocco have promised reforms and are generally respected by their subjects while, in Israel and Algeria, the authorities appear to have all agitators firmly under control. In none of these countries, however, have any concessions been made to Christians.
While Tunisia’s transition from dictatorship to a temporary regime has been largely peaceful, the same cannot be said of Libya of course, where a vicious civil war has taken place and chaos still reigns everywhere. In both countries, the rulers have announced that theirs will be a “moderate” form of Islam, but their new constitutions speak of the Shari’a being “the basic source” of all laws. This leaves the tiny Christian communities fearful for the future. The recent vandalism of the British War Cemetery in Libya was both shocking and scandalous.
Iraq of course has been haemorrhaging for many years, especially after the 2003 American-led invasion and the rise of an extreme brand of Islam that persecuted the Christians there rather savagely. In fact nearly half of the Christian population (some 300,000) have had to flee their homes and are living as refugees, mainly in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. As for Syria, it sadly looks like it is going the way of Iraq. Syrian Christians used to be reasonably treated by the authorities, but now they too are frightened and beginning to flee the country, including the Iraqi refugees. If the regime falls, Sunni extremists may well take over, for Sunnis make up the vast majority of the population.
We shall not discuss Turkey and Iran, simply because they are not Arab countries. As regards the Gulf countries, their governments are following the events surrounding them with great apprehension. There has already been a change of regime in Yemen, but the Shi’a rebellions in Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia have been brutally crushed by the Saudi forces. Saudi Arabia plays host to some 2-3 million Catholic and other Christian workers, mainly from India, Africa and the Philippines, who are treated rather badly, by both government and employers. Not a single church has been built for them, despite repeated requests by the Vatican. In fact any Christian worship in public is strictly forbidden, and, like many Arab and Islamic countries, while all converts to Islam are welcomed with open arms, any who dare leave Islam are threatened with execution.
In conclusion, the West has misjudged the forces pressing for “democratic reform” in Arab countries, underestimating the dominant players in the region and presuming that “democracy” is understood there. The fact is that the increasing islamisation of societies since the 1970s has left the great majority of Muslims devoted to traditional, as well as radical, versions of Islam. Liberal and secular movements tend to be small, marginal and often repressed. Meanwhile and naturally, the quest for more freedom and a better life continues, particularly among the young. But as long as religion and politics are not separated, and as long as the Shari’a dominates, the fundamental elements of democracy cannot exist and freedom and justice cannot be achieved.As for the unfortunate Christians living there, they remain under constant threat, if not possible eventual extinction, unless Western leaders abandon their apathy and apply great pressure on Arab leaders to improve the lot of Christian minorities, giving them the same basic human rights as those enjoyed by Muslim minorities living in the West. When the indigenous Christians were at times in past centuries allowed to use their talents in the service of their countries, civilisation prospered. They still remain loyal and peaceful citizens today and are still part and parcel of Middle Eastern culture, deserving to be respected and cherished. If given the chance again to participate fully in the life of their newly formed nations, they can certainly make a big difference indeed.
(© JS, 2012, article previously published in The Catholic Times
, 20 May 2012, included here with permission)